The following post contains spoilers for The Nun.
Since James Wan’s outstanding The Conjuring was released five years ago, we’ve seen a full-blown cinematic universe spring up around the demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, and gone deep on a few of the toughest cases they ever handled. The latest entry, The Nun, out this weekend, tells the origin story of the habit-wearing malevolent the Warrens vanquished in The Conjuring 2. Its name is Valak (the Defiler! The Profane! The Marquee of Snakes!), and it emerged from a very unwelcoming abbey in the mountains of Romania. While The Nun doesn’t bring many novel moments to the haunted-house subgenre, it is as handsomely shot as the rest of the Conjuring-verse films — and it does have one of the single best scares of this nebulous franchise.
The Corin Hardy–directed film stars Demián Bichir as Father Anthony Burke, a priest who’s basically on the Vatican’s supersecret SVU (supernatural victim’s unit) team, and Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene, a novitiate sent with Burke to investigate the suicide of a nun at a remote outpost of Catholicism and terror in 1952 Romania. As Irene and Burke’s charming and flirtatious guide tells them, the hundreds of crosses surrounding the grounds are meant to keep the evil from leaving the abbey, not to bar it from getting in. The three of them brave the threshold — and many bad, sacrilegious things happen. A bunch of crosses turn upside down on their own, and a showdown between God and the Devil ensues.
In the film’s final challenge, Sister Irene has located Valak’s origin point below the convent and the two finally come face to face in spectacular fashion. The resurrection chamber has filled with deep water after years of dereliction, and in a tussle, Irene is catapulted back onto a set of stairs. As she lays there, half submerged, she looks on in horror as Valak rises from the water in front of her. Those eerie green eyes rise above the surface and then the whole of the nun demon is slowly exposed.
The camera pulls back to a wide shot of the now-towering Valak standing on the water’s surface, staring straight at Sister Irene. Then we cut to her point of view, to behold the monster, and after a beat held just long enough to make you sink in your chair, Valak streams forward like a missile — straight at the camera — and snatches Irene into her hands.
Reader, I gleefully screamed. Because here’s the thing: There’s almost nothing more frightening in real life than a threatening person running directly at you. Think of that harrowing moment in It when Pennywise rises from the murky basement water and bears down on little Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). Pennywise actually eats a baby’s arm in that movie, and yet it’s still more frightening to watch the clown just run screaming at full speed.
The incredible door scene in Annabelle, another high point of the Conjuring-verse, uses the same technique as the Valak scene: setting the camera over the victim’s shoulder, right before we watch a ghost girl come plowing toward Mia Form (Annabelle Wallis). I didn’t even like Annabelle, but I love this scene, and I think it represents the best of the franchise’s patience and smart cinematography.
Women in particular spend their lives walking down dark sidewalks at night worrying about this exact scenario (except about men instead of ghosts), but even a big, strong dude isn’t really ever ready for a deranged aggressor to come charging at them with a full head of steam. Case in point: that instantly iconic moment from Get Out when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is rendered inert at the sight of a man, a plain old man (well, superficially plain, at least), sprinting at him from out of the darkness.
This visual is terrifying on a basic level, and takes you from having to empathize with a haunted-house situation to responding to the very real terror of being chased. It strips away the barrier between you and the fantastic because when your brain screams RUN! you forget to tell yourself, Don’t worry. We’re not in a damned Romanian church in the 1950s. This is just an AMC.
All of Wan’s films — Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring and its adjacent movies — rely on practical effects, and are all the better for it. Real people in nun habits. Real people painted to look like demons. Real dolls you want to set on fire. But The Nun, which is still practically driven, does rely more heavily than those other films on shadow play and jump cuts — in part because it has to surmount the additional challenge of making a demon you’ve already seen in full feel mysterious. In other words, Corin Hardy had to figure out a way to set the reset button in his audience’s brains, and hope they feel the nagging pull of dread as they squint to see Bonnie Aarons’s spectacular face done up in full ghost makeup as she drifts in and out of darkness.
And when you see Valak up close, it works. Hold off on the bloody red fangs and the extra-extended jaw, and just give me some glorious face-acting on a character with the worst intentions. The Nun, though not the best entry in the franchise, is an important reminder for horror filmmakers: The scariest thing you can do for an audience in a movie filled with shadow monsters is to show them something real.